TAMPA, Fla. - Firefighters work a job where seconds matter, but in situations where they have to extricate someone from a crushed vehicle, using outdated tools can turn those seconds into minutes that seem like forever.
Manufacturers are using harder steel to make vehicles, and while the stronger material makes cars safer, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue realized it also made it difficult for them to cut people out of them.
"We learned that the harder metals are obviously harder to the point that our old tools can't cut through them," Training Officer Tim Pearson said. "We've had some of our crews experience newer cars where they attempted old techniques that didn't work because of the new ultra high-strength steels. It's absolutely different. You'd never know from the outside of the car."
Another challenge - Manufacturers are using magnesium instead of steel to make dashboards.
"So our old methods of pushing the dash now no longer work either," Pearson said.
Pearson was among a group of Hillsborough firefighters who traveled to Alabama to test out new life-saving tools, often called "Jaws of Life", on newer model vehicles. The department showed off some of those tools during a demonstration at the Hillsborough County Public Safety Operations Complex on Friday.
Using a junk car, Pearson demonstrated how long it takes to cut through a vehicle using the department's current cutting tool.
Norman Brown, a driver/engineer with the department, used one of the newer tools.
Brown's tool cut through a door in about five minutes.
Pearson's tool sprung a leak.
"Technology does make a difference," Brown said. "With a hard car, ultra-high-strength steel, newer technology went right through it like butter. The newer technology went right through it. Older technology, unfortunately, we would have to stop, make different cuts, stop, make different cuts to defeat that metal. The newer technology did it all in one cut."
Older tools require multiple parts, from fuel to hydraulic pumps and hose reels. The newer tools are battery-operated, which makes it easier to store and use, Battalion Chief Ronnie Johnson said.
"Much safer on the firefighters as well as the environment and the patients," he said.
HCFR extricated 346 people in 2017, Johnson said. Between Jan. 1 and June 30, the department extricates 195 people.
While the new tools will be well used, they come at a cost - from $7,000 to $10,000 per tool.
The department currently has 50 hydraulic cutters, spreaders, power units and rams. Replacing all of them, minus the power units, could cost up to $1.5 million.
The department plans to order the newer tools by October, but how many they purchase will depend on their budget, said HCFR spokesperson Eric Seidel, who added that the agency hopes to receive a grant to offset some of the cost.
For those cutting people out of vehicles, it's seconds that matter most.
"Car manufacturers are making changes for their benefit and for the benefit of the passengers," Pearson said. "We have to catch up to that. We've fallen behind. to no fault of our own, but the car manufacturers are consistently making new developments that we have to catch up to. Obviously, we'd have much more confidence and we'd have less concern if we knew our tools could cut through anything."
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